It was a hot, hot day in Vientiane, the not-so-bustling Lao capital, as my new Aussie friend and I set out to explore the town by foot. Our new Japanese friend had to do a “visa run” across the border to Thailand (as in his stay in Lao was about to expire, so he simply, had to get stamped out of Laos, stamped into Thailand, and then turn right around and come back again to get another 15 days in the country).
Vientiane’s “old quarter,” as I suppose you could call it, is, of course, charming. Brick lined sidewalks lead past grandiose-looking government agencies as well as foreign embassies, many of which are surrounded by wonderfully preserved colonial architecture.
But step away from the touristic center a bit and things take on a different tone. As my Aussie friend and I wandered down side streets, we saw where people actually live. Sure, there were no chickens wandering around the street, as there are in other Lao towns, but there were signs of life. Families hung out in their front yards as their neighbors produced handicrafts. We enjoyed fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, perfect for a refreshing day. We conversed with the locals, who do speak a bit of Thai (as Thailand is so close). And it was a great experience!
Our walk took us past Vientiane’s version of Paris’ Arc de Triumphe, this one called Patuxay, a victory monument that was constructed in 1960, yet never finished due to political upheaval in the country. Unlike its Paris counterpart, it has four sides (and hence, four arches). It’s not terribly picturesque from the outside (as stated on a sign erected on its side…”From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete…” The interior decoration was quite nice though, reflecting a distinct Lao style.
We walked about 4km to the holiest Buddhist site in Laos, Pha That Luang, a pretty magnificent gilded stupa (well series of stupas would be more accurate). Before it sat an enormous park, and while we didn’t pay the admission fee to go in, we were able to view the stupa in all its splendor due to its sheer enormity.
While there, we worked up a conversation with a fellow from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who was there with his local friend from Vientiane. We talked for a while before exchanging email addresses, as both the Aussie fellow and I had plans to spend a couple days in Kuala Lumpur in the coming month. We also spent a while chatting with a fellow from Chiang Mai province in Thailand (who spoke about as good English as we spoke Thai, but we managed!)
On our way back to our room, we discovered that we were staying around the corner from this rather huge brick stupa. Rumor has it that it was once gilded, but the gold was stolen by an invading Siamese Army in the 19th Century. Nowadays it’s called That Dam (the Black Stupa, as it had once been covered by black stucco) and many folks had left offerings on its various levels.
All in all, it was a pretty fantastic day! I’ll be spending the rest of today here in Vientiane before heading to southern Laos tomorrow. Now the question becomes whether or not I think I can stomach 16 hours on a bus, or if I’d rather break it up (and loose another precious day in the process).